Austria gets its first female chancellor (temporarily)

Austria gets its first female chancellor (temporarily) after cash-for-contracts scandal toppled the country’s right-wing government

  • Current chancellor Sebastian Kurz lost confidence vote in government Monday 
  • Brigitte Bierlein, president of constitutional court, named as interim chancellor
  • She is Austria’s first female chancellor, but only until elections due in September
  • Comes after Kurz’s key election partner was caught offering government contracts in return for political donations 

Austria will get its first female chancellor after the governing right-wing coalition was brought down in a cash-for-contracts scandal. 

Brigitte Bierlein, the president of Austria’s constitutional court, has been named interim chancellor after the current chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, lost a vote of confidence on Monday.

It comes after Heinz-Christian Strache, the country’s vice chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom Party – which was Kurz’s main coalition partner – resigned after being caught on camera offering government contracts in exchange for donations.

Brigitte Bierlein, the president of Austria’s constitutional court, was named interim chancellor on Thursday after the ruling right-wing government lost a vote of confidence on Monday

Current chancellor Sebastian Kurz saw his government toppled after Heinz-Christian Strache, his deputy and leader of key coalition partner, was caught offering government contracts in return for cash (pictured, demonstrators call for Strache to go)

Strache resigned in the wake of the scandal as Kurz – Europe’s youngest leader at just 32 – to accuse his Freedom Party of attempting to derail his reformist agenda.

That led to Freedom Party ministers resigning en masse, promoting the vote of confidence which Kurz lost.

Early elections are expected in September, when Kurz has vowed to return his party to parliament in greater numbers.  

Ms Bierlein, who is due to reach the court’s mandatory retirement age of 70 this year, will be tasked with putting together a cabinet that will have parliament’s backing until that election takes place.

‘The most important goal is currently to contribute to greater calm and to building trust between all (political) sides … in Austria, in Europe and in the whole world,’ Bierlein said after being named by President Alexander Van der Bellen on Thursday.

Van der Bellen’s pick is what had been widely expected – a veteran civil servant not involved in day-to-day politics – though many judges are close to a party.

Kurz’s right-wing coalition government had proposed Bierlein as the court’s chief.

Strache (left) was forced to resign on May 18, sparking mass-resignations from party ministers which toppled Kurz (right). He has vowed early elections to take place in September

Van der Bellen said he and Bierlein, whom he plans to formally appoint along with her cabinet within days, had agreed to pick mainly civil servants as ministers. 

Bierlein said she had chosen Alexander Schallenberg, a diplomat who worked as a senior official in Kurz’s office, as foreign minister.

‘In the coming months we will, no doubt, not see any big, lasting legislative initiatives. It is much more about a good and orderly administration of state affairs,’ Van der Bellen said.

The bribery scandal erupted into the public eye on May 17 when two German newspapers published a video taken in 2017 which shows Strache speaking to a woman he believed was a Russian oligarch’s niece.

Sitting alongside another Freedom Party official – Johann Gudenus – Strache is told the heiress wants to invest 250million euros in Austria to benefit his party.

The pair discuss how to restructure Austria’s media to neuter criticism of the Freedom Party, and how the woman could hide illegal donations to them.

In return, Strache appears to offer the woman lucrative public contracts.

Strache has denied committing any crimes and decried a ‘dirty campaign’ against him, but none-the-less was forced to resign.

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